estimating ullage

Ullage, the word for the empty space at the top of a wine bottle, is Peter Suber’s term for the gap between a library’s actual holdings and its patrons’ access needs. That’s a difficult thing to measure, but I might have found a way to estimate it with reference not to patron needs but to all published journals, as follows.

  • In 2003, Kathy Varjabedian at LANL compared the electronic holdings at 12 (large, well funded research) libraries with the ISI Journal Citation Report’s top 100 most-cited journals for the previous year, producing an estimate for the ullage of those libraries of between 2% and a startling 54% (or 0% and 40%, if clinical titles were excluded).
  • Also in 2003, Carol Tenopir estimated that there were around 44,000 scholarly journals in publication, just over 21,000 of them “refereed”, which is the best proxy that Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory allows for “peer-reviewed”. Repeating Tenopir’s search just now returned 26,677 active, refereed, academic/scholarly journals.
  • Last year, I used a UCOSC dataset from 2004, a curated list of about 3000 titles, to estimate the average subscription price for a peer-reviewed scholarly journal (table 2 here) at $1238/title.
  • Here are some more data from the Library Journal Periodicals Price Survey:


    Sorry about the jpg, I still can’t make MT cope with tables. The spreadsheet is here. In case the image goes awry: the dataset covers more than 5,000 titles from 30 disciplines, and mean price/title is $723 in 2003 and $791 in 2004.
  • The mean serials expenditure for an ARL member institution was around $5.5 million in 2003 and $5.8 million in 2004.

At $1200/journal, $5.8 million1 would buy subscription access to about 4,800 titles, which is less than 23% of the number of active, refereed, academic/scholarly journals. At $700/journal, ARL members — some of the largest and best funded libraries in America (indeed, in the world) — are able to afford access to less than half of the scholarly literature.
This seems reasonably consistent with the earlier LANL estimate, given that Varjabedian looked only at the top 100 most-cited journals, which must surely be at the top of any research library’s “must-have” list.
It’s important to point out that what I’m estimating here is not ullage sensu Suber, but rather library holdings relative to all possible holdings. But I would argue that the access needs of all the scholars and other patrons served by ARL libraries is surely a decent proxy for “all possible journals”, if not a significantly larger body of information! Put another way, here I am estimating the gap between current access levels and the information availability of a 100% Open Access world.

1This calculation assumes that 100% of the serials budget goes to scholarly journals. That’s not true, but I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s at least 90%.

an interesting mind

This entry is especially for those of my readers who do not work in science or related fields (librarians, publishers, etc), and who are not quite sure why I am so obsessed with Open Science. (Hi, Mom and Dad!)
This is Pawel Szczesny at TED Warsaw, describing for the lay public what Open Science is, and what it can mean. Pawel’s is the interesting mind to which I refer in the title. I finally met him in person at Science Online earlier this year, but I have been following him around online for years. He never fails to come at a question or problem from an interesting and useful angle, and his TED talk is just the latest example.

What if?
What if I explain in simple words my research area? What if I point you to additional information so you could learn more and understand the topic I am working on? What if I make sure you have access to all relevant literature for free? What if I make sure you have access to all the data so you can play with it on your own? What if I take off this laboratory coat, so there is one artificial difference less between you and me? What if the only thing that mattered in this game of solving nature’s mysteries was skills, knowledge and passion? We have a name for that utopian vision: it’s called Open Science.

Do yourself a favour, watch the whole thing.

Where indeed?

AJ Cann has a post up that neatly summarizes the dilemma facing Open Science advocates/enthusiasts, and asks useful questions arising therefrom. In the current competition-focused environment, says Alan:

Open science is an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, which is a messy and unpredictable business. Too unpredictable for most people to try to build a career on. Thinking about strategies which are likely to be successful leads me towards the concept of an open science community rather than unilateral complete openness – a long term multiplayer collaboration. Does such a community already exist? If not, how do we build one?

Having taken a job in biotech, I feel a bit cut off from any such community — industry is notoriously protective of IP and fond of secrecy besides. I feel a bit of a fraud, for instance, taking part in discussions of Open Science issues on FriendFeed (such as the conversation kicked off by Alan’s blog post), knowing that I can’t talk openly about my own work. It doesn’t keep me from shooting off my yap, of course, but it’s a nagging icky feeling — and I keep getting the meta-feeling that it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as secrecy in academia only makes sense within the existing reward structure, secrecy in industry could be at least partly offset by policy decisions that recognize the gains in efficiency that collaboration can bring. I’ve heard multiple times from multiple sources that industry may close itself off from the rest of the world, but within a company, the teamwork ethic is amazing. Clearly, the value of co-operation is recognized. Why shouldn’t that also work for (larger and larger) groups of companies? What you lose by not being the only company to know something from which profit can be made (call it X) is offset by the fact that you might never have learned X without the collaboration — and in the meantime, the world gets X that much faster.
It seems clear, though, that such top-down decisions are more likely to be made in academia, and perhaps the nonprofit sector, than in profit-driven industry — at least until there are enough concrete examples of success to tip the perceived balance of risk. If I’m — if we Open Foo types are — right, it’s actually riskier to compete than to cooperate in the long term. Better to own a share of X sooner than to delay any return on your investment in the hope of owning X outright later. This is especially true when the resources required to try to own X could be used to get you shares in multiple other projects at the same time.
Even then, openness in industry seems to me unlikely to go beyond consortia. Complete openness (open notebook science) precludes patent protection, and in the dog-eat-dog world of business driven by the insatiable demands of disconnected shareholders, I don’t think we are ever going to wean the beancounters off their patents. (We could improve the situation by overhauling the patent process so that teeny incremental changes were not granted full protection, of course; but I digress, and don’t get me started.)
So to return to Alan’s analogy, “multiplayer” means different things in academia (and perhaps the nonprofit sector) and in business. In business, it means defined communities of co-operation; in academia, I see no good reason why it shouldn’t mean everyone (except, perhaps, where the two intersect and academics enter a business-defined collaboration1).
In academia, communities with an open science focus are beginning to form. The best example is still the one which continues to coalesce around Jean-Claude Bradley’s UsefulChem initiative, but it’s no longer the only one as it was just a few years ago. Chemist Mat Todd has funding for an open science project to improve synthesis of the anti-schistosomiasis drug, praziquantel. Biophysicist Steve Koch has a labful of open science enthusiast grad students. And so on; there’s a list of Open Notebook practitioners on wikipedia, and my own feeling is that technical rather than philosophical barriers are keeping quite a few labs from that list. By being discoverable on the public web, all of these labs can do what Jean-Claude is doing: accumulate collaborators and get more work done. Try searching Google for “DNA tweezers kinesin” — the second and fifth hits will hook you up with Steve Koch. “Praziquantel synthesis” — the third hit will take you to the schisto community on The Synaptic Leap, where you’ll soon meet Mat Todd, and the seventh hit will take you to a brief discussion of Mat’s project on the UsefulChem blog. “Antimalarial Ugi” — most of the first ten hits will introduce you to UsefulChem. If you’re doing something that’s in any way related to the work that goes on in these labs, you’re one Google search away from a collaboration.
In business, too, more and more companies are recognizing the benefits of wider sharing. Details of private collaborations are hard to come by, but just try searching for “precompetitive sharing” — even Big Pharma can see that they stand to make net gains from sharing their datasets. For an even better example, check out Sage Bionetworks. I was lucky enough to hear Stephen Friend speak at the Science Commons Symposium a couple of weeks ago, and one of the points he made was that the really big questions in biology require such immense amounts of data that the only way to collect them is to do it in the open. Any impediment at all, be it CC-BY attribution requirements or IP protections, will derail the whole process; the only answer in the end is the public domain.
So, the seeds are there. I think continued crystallization is inevitable, but it’s certainly worthwhile to try to monitor and direct the process — by way of questions like those Alan is asking.

1I don’t buy the argument, by the way, that unless academics work in secret and enable strong patent protection they will never get industry partners. If you invent something from which profit can be made, someone will want to make that profit. If, without outright patent ownership, it’s not enough money to tempt a Roche or an Intel, there will always be smaller, hungrier companies.

no art without

I remember reading somewhere about a school of philosophical thought which holds that there can be no art without the resistance of the medium — that the art is in the difficulty the artist overcomes when trying to make the medium express his or her message.
I don’t know that I buy the idea, but I do notice that my cell phone camera doesn’t have a very broad color or contrast palette, so it tends to blow out highlights and lose shadow detail — and that I’m starting to recognize opportunities to exploit those weaknesses:


I’m not sure I like being trained to a particular visual style like that, though. I picked up a camera in the first place in order to see differently, and I’ve been very pleased with the change in my world that this practice has rendered. I don’t think I want to put blinders on it.